The Policies of Empire
At a godless hour the next morning, Arrius made his way across the bridge to the Palace, trailing a loudly protesting Lucius and two borrowed Batavian bodyguards. Lucius was less than happy to be hauled out of a supremely comfortable bed, and not shy about sharing his unhappiness with anyone else who cared to listen.
Finally, right outside the gates, even Arrius had had enough. He stopped so abruptly, Lucius ran straight into his back and nearly stepped onto his toga.
“Let’s get this straight, sheep. I’m fairly certain I’m going to meet my doom – or at least my death sentence – this morning, and the least you can do is shut up about your lack of sleep and be a true friend and share my misery. If you survive – and you probably will – then you can tell my father exactly how it happened, and if I do, then I will. But I am not facing Postumianus without someone I can trust by my side, and since all my slaves have taken off for Rome, that leaves you. Does that make it better?”
Lucius rolled his eyes.
“It would be better,” he muttered, “if only my penis weren’t so sore…”
Arrius laughed. “Ah, the perils of Iolanthe’s ladies! Don’t worry, it will go away…” He looked toward the gates, and for a moment looked as apprehensive as he felt. Then, he straightened his tunic, adjusted his toga, ran his fingers through his hair one last time, and took a deep breath. Postumianus had only been appointed this past summer, and he didn’t know the man at all, unlike his predecessor Senecio. Better to just get it over with.
He squared his shoulders and straightened his spine. Then, he gave Lucius a long, serious look, so serious that Lucius was startled out of his morning fog.
“I’m glad, Lucius, that you’re the one beside me.”
“And I’m glad” Lucius answered after a long pause, “that we at least had…this-“his arms spread out to encompass Eboracum and all it contained – “before…”
Arrius sighed. “Before…” Then, he walked through the gates and toward the entrance to the praetorium.
Even at that early hour just after dawn, the praetorium was a beehive of activity, the long hall lined with soldiers and secretaries, slaves and errand runners, petitioners and veterans in every shape, size and origin from all over the Empire.
Nearly at the end of the hallway was a pair of high doors, guarded by two legionaries in full battle gear and two very lethal spears. Arrius came to yet another abrupt halt, stood up even straighter, ran his hands through his hair and took a deep breath. He looked across his shoulder at Lucius.
Lucius grinned back. “Never, Carrot!”
“Well, then…dead, alive…” he looked at the legionaries. “Senior tribune of the XX Valeria Victrix Gaius Arrius Nerva Rufus, for Marcus Junius Faustinus Postumianus, at his request.”
One of the legionaries winked at him, then they both pushed the doors open, and Arrius and Lucius found themselves in the anteroom of Britannia’s governor, where his secretary Astyanax held court behind a desk piled high on either side with tablets, book buckets and scrolls.
The office of the governor of Britannia looked nothing like it had when Senecio had been in charge. Senecio had always been far too busy to smarten up his office, and his Spartan office had reflected his spare, no-nonsense personality. But now, Postumianus was in charge, and Postumianus was anything but Spartan. A Parthian rug covered the vast expanse in front of Astyanax’ desk, a white, highly polished marble that very nearly reflected Astyanax’ Mauritanian features, including a nose no Roman would have been ashamed to bear. There were two opulent chairs in front of his desk with thick blue cushions trimmed in gold braid that matched the tunics of the two slaves who stood at attention by the inner doors. Along the wall was an enormous couch for petitioners, not unlike Iolanthe’s, but much longer and with fewer pillows. The walls were still relatively bare, painted in the simple, red, black and white pattern that could be found throughout the Palace and the praetorium.
Arrius cleared his throat and repeated: “Senior tribune Gaius Arrius Nerva Rufus of the XX Valeria Victrix legion for Marcus Junius Faustinus Postumianus, governor of Britannia, at his request.”
For a senior tribune, Astyanax could muster something that looked like a smile, although in his case, the smile had devolved into an unattractive sneer showing very bad teeth.
“Certainly! I’ll let the governor know you’re here” and he indicated the couch against the opposite wall, while he went into Postumianus’ office.
Arrius turned to Lucius. “It might be a while. You might as well make yourself comfortable, because this could be a long morning.”
Lucius shrugged his shoulders. “Do I have anything better to do? Don’t worry about me, Carrot – just come out of that office alive and well.”
They both stood as Astyanax came back. “The governor will see you now, Gaius Arrius.”
Who turned to Lucius, ran his fingers through his hair one last time, straightened his tunic and his toga along his left shoulder, and winked at his friend. Then he turned around and walked across the room and through the doors the guards closed behind him. Lucius settled himself comfortably on the couch, hoping he wouldn’t fall asleep, and prepared himself for a long and boring and possibly fateful morning, while Astyanax buried himself in the pile of documents on his desk. Lucius he completely ignored.
In Postumianus’ office, all traces of Senecio were gone. Gone were the simple wooden tables he had used for his desk and meeting table, and the shelves and cubbyholes for scrolls, wax tablets and book buckets. Instead, everything around Arrius talked loudly and ostentatiously of money and quite a lot of it, from the rug on the floor, the ornate desk and a pair of matching chairs in front of it identical to the ones in Astyanax’ office. There were Athenian candelabra and Alexandrian braziers and a Syrian incense burner or two, expensive Gaulish glassware and embroidered Tyrian purple tapestries hanging on gilded rods. Arrius hated it on sight. In the next moment, he found Postumianus, who stood by his desk beaming like a fat and pampered cat, and saw no reason to change his opinion.
Arrius had by necessity grown used to being at least a head taller than most Romans, but even so, Postumianus was not tall. In his late thirties or early forties, he had made quite a successful career for himself, and had that same sleek, manicured, feline look of so many of the Africans Severus had promoted during his reign.
“Gaius Arrius!” Postumianus gushed, clasping his arm with surprising strength. “Senecio told me so much about you before he left, and I can’t begin to tell you just how much I’ve looked forward to meeting you! Quite a surprise with Cadaracus, eh? Can’t wait to hear about that, either! But please, do sit down.” He gestured toward the chair. “Wine? Mulsum? Water? Perhaps a pastry or two at this hour of the morning?”
“Some water would be fine, thank you.” Arrius seated himself and adjusted his toga, looking every inch the chilly aristocrat.
Postumianus flicked a wrist and sent a slave scurrying out the back door.
“Well, then, Gaius Arrius. You’re here for your discharge as senior tribune of the XX Valeria Victrix, and Galba has given you a very flattering report. It’s on its way to the Senate now. In fact, he had only the highest praise for you, and if I’d never met the man at Luguvallium, I would have been suspicious for that reason alone. Galba doesn’t strike me as much of a flatterer, I have to say.”
Arrius remembered countless occasions when Galba had said many things about him as well as to him, all to the point and none of them flattering.
“He’s not, sir.”
“I didn’t think so. Another thing in your particular case is that Severus has you short-listed as one of the quaestores Augusti, and that’s yet another reason I had to see you for myself. However, I’m sure he shall have plenty to say about that himself later on, and as you know, it’s a short-list, not yet an official appointment. But the main reason you’re here – ” Postumianus stretched in his chair and leaned back, staring Arrius right in the eye – “is simply this: you’re the highest ranking Roman official, military and otherwise, with the longest experience of Britannia, that we currently have. Senecio is gone, the two other senior tribunes of the Britannia legions are fairly recently appointed, and you’ve somehow managed to be here for six years, four of those years on some pretty brutal campaigns, and more importantly, you’ve survived. I can imagine you might have things to say about the Britons, the Caledonians and the Maeatae that could tell us a few things we might need to know. I’m the new man here, so I might need information above and beyond what I can get from official sources. There have been plans underway for some time, to split Britannia into two separate provinces to make it more manageable, but they’re still plans, for now. So…given your experience, what can you tell me about these people that no one else can?”
“I’m not entirely sure how I can help you, sir. I was a tribune for the XX Valeria Victrix at Deva, not a government official stationed here in Eboracum. I should think there would be many people here who could help you far better than I.”
“Really?” Postumianus showed off yellowing teeth. Suddenly, he leaned forward in his chair over his desk. “Do you know, Gaius Arrius, I rather doubt it. In this day and age of provincial appointments and scores of New Men, mostly from Africa, like Severus or even myself, there’s noone quite like you. A flawless military record, possible quaestor by personal appointment, no less, so you must have made quite the impression on Severus, and believe me, he’s not that easy to impress. You come from an old, old family, not patrician precisely but the next best thing – serving Rome and a long line of emperors for hundreds of years. You have consuls, praetors and magistrates in your ancestry. And last but not least, you’re Roman. Not a Gaul, not African, not even Italian, but Roman. With that kind of perspective, you might have noticed a few things the rest of us tend to overlook.” Postumianus finally leaned back in his seat, grinning like a well-fed cat but with rather shorter fangs.
“And then again…you’re not Roman, or not entirely. Fact is, with your mother being a Briton, you shouldn’t even have been posted here at all, but you were. I heard your father managed to pull a few strings with his old legion to get you here.”
Suddenly, the room seemed much colder, as if a chilly wind had somehow crept in through the windows. Postumianus rubbed his arms.
“I’m afraid, sir, that you’ve been misinformed. My mother was not a Briton, but a Monapian.”
“So? What’s the difference?” The governor shrugged.
“A difference of both language and orientation, sir. Monapia looks to the west and Hibernia, not eastward to Britannia.”
“Does it now? Nothing on Monapia that I’ve ever heard of except a lot of sheep, and certainly nothing of any interest to us.”
Nothing, thought Arrius to himself, for you to exploit, you mean. No gold or silver, no tin, no lead, and no money to be made, since there were sheep to spare in Britannia. He gave Postumianus the full benefit of his iciest glare.
Before the atmosphere in the room could deteriorate any further, the slave returned with a tray, glass carafes filled with wine and water, chased-silver goblets and a matching platter of honeyed sesame cakes.
After they had been served, and the slave had retreated to his post along the wall, Postumianus continued.
“Fair enough, Gaius Arrius. I take it your mother is a rather touchy subject, eh? In any case, you should have a unique perspective on this wretched island, and I thought I’d like to find out what it is. Certainly we have plenty of people, some of whom we pay a fair amount of money to keep us informed. The problem with buying information, though, is that you can never be convinced you actually get what you’re paying for. You’ve been here long enough, I’m sure you know that. Before you left for Rome, I wanted to take a good, long, hard look at the man who managed to capture Cadaracus almost single-handedly, who helped negotiate the terms of last summer’s treaty, even if the bloody thing wasn’t worth the paper it was written on in the first place and that was no fault of yours, and finally, since Severus has you short-listed, he thinks you’re going to be very important, and when he thinks so, that’s good enough for me. Say what you like, but the man has sound instincts…” Postumianus paused for breath – “about some things, anyway.”
Well, thought Arrius, one thing you could say about Postumianus. He made no bones about his opportunism. It was all there, right out in the open for anyone to see. If you’re going to be important, it would behoove me to cultivate you, in case I need a favor, or you do. Gods. Life was too short for politics, and yet however hard he tried, he couldn’t escape them.
“In any case,” the governor sipped some well-watered wine – “as you know, the Wall is being repaired up and down the length of it, and will be until at least next summer. Got to find something for all those imported troops to do to keep them from being bored, eh? Most of Britannia is fairly stable for now, at least, and so long as we keep the Brigantes happy, they won’t make too much trouble, I hope. My main bellyache for now is those pesky Caledonians and Maeatae, but then again, you managed to get Cadaracus, and that might just shut them up and keep them quiet. And there you have it, Gaius Arrius, my main headache. So very much easier to govern a nice, peaceable province, you know? What I’d like to know is your esteemed opinion on those irritating pests, the Caledonians and Maeatae. What have you learned about them? What do they want?”
“Sir, there must be any number of people who could inform you far better than I. The scouts of the II Augusta, the frumentarii, the merchants who trade north of the Wall and the wall of Antoninus Pius or…”Arrius was beginning to feel as if the cushion underneath him had been stuffed with hot charcoal.
“Or just about anyone who isn’t you, hmm?” Postumianus leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest.
“And I’ve asked every fucking one of them to tell me what they know, and they have. They’ve all said the same thing – ask Gaius Arrius, he knows them best because of that treaty we made last year. So now I’m asking you.”
Cacat, thought Arrius. Now how do I get myself out of this one?
“I would like to add” Postumianus went on, “that I’m not interested in the usual claptrap flattery of all those government sycophants who only tell me what they think I want to hear or need to know. They’ve all said the same things in different versions, and that’s not what I need to hear. I want to hear the truth, and I’d rather hear it from you.”
“Can I take that to mean that you don’t agree with Imperial policy on expanding the province?” asked Arrius.
“You can take that to mean anything you like. Personally, I like to govern an orderly, happy province with the most efficiency and the least loss of good Roman lives and property. There’s enough trouble in other places in the Empire without Britannia getting unmanageable as well.”
The governor’s face was no longer quite so friendly and welcoming. His arms were still crossed over his chest, and he was leaning back in his chair, looking both formidable and slightly intimidating, despite his lack of stature. There would be no quarter from this man, that was patently clear, and as Arrius sipped his wine and tried to phrase his thoughts, he wondered how he would manage to talk himself out of this little corner. He cleared his throat.
“Well, sir, I’m not quite sure how to put it, but to put it bluntly, they want nothing to do with us, with Rome, or with anything we have to offer.”
This was not what Postumianus had been expecting to hear.
“But why not? We’ve always been good to our provinces! Built roads, brought trade, baths, built aqueducts with fresh water – everything! What else would Britannia be without Rome? Some backwater, uncivilized wilderness in a perpetual state of civil war and constantly at each others’ throats, is what!”
“Yes, sir, that’s true enough, but have you once tried to ask Cadaracus that question? Have you stopped to wonder why it is that they have fought us so vehemently and viciously for the past four years, or wondered why we’ve even bothered to take such drastic steps to subdue such a ‘backwater, uncivilized wilderness’? Really, if you think about it, sir, there isn’t much in Caledonia, at least from our point of view, that is ‘worthy of conquest’, apart from the nicely rounded symmetry of planting the Roman legions entirely throughout this island from the south to the far north. And taxes, of course. Slaves. The usual.” Arrius had to hide a very smug grin. There was nothing in the world quite like pulling the rug out from under your superiors, he thought. He almost began to enjoy himself.
“But rejecting Rome out of hand…” Postumianus murmured. “That’s what I don’t understand. How can anyone purposely want to remain so…barbaric and uncivilized? How can they refuse to be a part of the rest of Britannia?”
“If you think about it a moment, sir, it makes sense, at least if you’re a Caledonian. A complete conquest would mean taxation, among other things, which is an alien concept to a people who live by barter and trade. More to the point, at least from their perspective, sir, is the prospect of slaves and the constant presence of Roman troops, and that’s precisely why they don’t want us, under any circumstances or in any form. Roman troops would mean that they have failed as leaders and as a people to protect their own, their land and their entire way of life, however barbarous it might seem to the rest of us, and for them, living in slavery is not an option they would choose.”
“Ah.” Postumianus leaned forward, all rapt attention now.
“Then, you have another challenge here.” Arrius went on. “You just said it yourself, that there are plans underway, although they’re only plans, for now, to split the province in two, just as we did in Germania and for much the same reasons I’m guessing, although the Britons haven’t been quite such a headache as the Germans. Britannia is a large province, sir, with three legions, and right now with scores of vexillations from other legions as well. I’m thinking that Eboracum would be the obvious choice for the northern capital, but consider this: that if we had succeeded in adding Caledonia to the province, you would be in charge of a province at least as large as southern Britannia, and with far more difficult terrain from a military perspective. In Deva, we’ve had quite a few…skirmishes, let’s say, with marauding Hibernians on the western coast, and that would be another headache for you, if it isn’t already a big enough bellyache for Galba. Should the conquered Caledonians and Maeatae ever get restless at the same time, and if the Hibernians ever get even more audacious than they are now, and if the Brigantes ever decide to join the fray, you’d have trouble from the Middle Sea of the Isles all along the Wall to the Germanic Sea to the east and possibly as far south as the southern border, and meanwhile, whoever is appointed governor in Londinium gets to sit back in supreme comfort and watch the spectacle. So much for your ‘peaceable province’!”
There was a long, interminable pause as Postumianus considered the implications.
“You certainly don’t mince your words, Gaius Arrius.”
“You wanted the truth, sir.”
“And so I had it, straight and unwatered. I can see why Severus would want you as quaestor. But…” The feline, calculating look on Postumianus’ face returned. “That begs another question, and in this case, it’s every bit as relevant as the first.” He leaned forward again and met Arrius’ blue stare head-on.
“Whose side are you on?”
Not for the last time that day, Arrius wondered how he’d ever get out of answering that question.
“Ridiculous question! Of course he’s on our fucking side, Postumianus, how can he be anything else? I didn’t think you were quite such an idiot, or I’d never appointed you governor in the first place!” said a very distinctive voice from the door, and instantly, both Arrius and Postumianus froze in their chairs.
Standing at the door, supported by a cane in his hand on one side and a slave on the other, stood Lucius Septimius Severus.
Arrius and Postumianus gave each other a look, both thinking the exact same thing.